Valentina stood in front of the drapes. She looked like a tiny doll dressed all in white and gold so that she, like Asher, would match the table settings. Everyone in Musette's party matched the table, which meant that that, too, had been something they negotiated. Somehow clothes wouldn't have been high on my list, but then that was me.
Valentina's outfit was a miniature seventeenth-century dress with the skirt flared out to either side so that she was shaped like an oval. The skirt was very full and gave glimpses as she walked of tiny gold slippers and numerous petticoats. She even had a white wig that hid her brunette curls from view. The wig looked too heavy for that slender white throat, but she walked as if the jewels and feathers and powdered hair weighed nothing. She had absolutely perfect posture, but I knew that was from the corset that was under the dress. Those dresses don't fit right without the proper undergarments.
There had been no need for powder to make her skin white, rouge and red lipstick had been enough. Oh, and a black beauty mark in the shape of a tiny heart near that rosebud mouth. She should have looked ridiculous, but she didn't. She was like a sinister doll. When she flipped open her gold and lace fan with a sharp snap, I jumped.
She laughed, and only the laughter was childlike, a hint of how she might have sounded long ago.
"She has stood on the brink of the abyss and stared into it, and the abyss has looked back, has it not?"
I had to swallow hard to be able to answer, because my pulse was pounding, and I was suddenly shivering. "You talk like you know."
"I do." She walked towards us, gliding and graceful. She wore the body of a child, but she didn't move like one. I guess centuries of practice can teach anyone to glide.
She stopped farther back than an adult-sized person would, so she didn't have to strain to look up at me. I'd noticed she did that while everyone was mingling. "Once I was truly the child this body pretends to be. I wandered away from everyone, exploring as children do." She looked up at me with enormous brown eyes. "I found a door that was not locked. A room with many windows . . ."
"And none of them looked outside," I finished for her.
She blinked up at me. "Exactement.What did the windows look out upon?"
"A room," I said, "a huge room." I looked up at the cavernous roof. "Like this one, but bigger, and the windowed room sits above it all."
"You have not been in our inner sanctum, of that I am sure, but you speak as if you stood where I stood."
"Not physically, but I have stood there," I said.
We looked at each other, and it was a look of shared knowledge, shared terror, shared fear.
"How close did you get to the bed?" she asked.
"Closer than I wanted to," I whispered.
"I touched the black sheets, because I thought she was only sleeping."
"She is sleeping," I said.
Valentina shook her head, solemnly. "Non,to say she sleeps is to say any vampire sleeps. It is not sleep."
"She's not dead, not dead the way the rest of you are when you sleep."
"True, but she is not asleep either."
I shrugged. "Whatever you call it, she's not awake."
"And for that we are truly grateful, are we not?" She spoke softly enough that I leaned in towards her to hear the words.
"Yes," I whispered back, "we are."
She reached up and touched my neck, and I flinched, not from the touch, but from the tension of our words. She didn't laugh this time. "Only you and I have been touched by that dark."
"Belle Morte, too," I said.
Valentina looked a question at me.
"Belle has called me into some kind of dream when the Darkness rose around us."
"Our mistress has not informed us of this," Valentina said.
"It only happened today, early today," I said.
"Hmm," Valentina said, folding her fan tight, running it through her tiny hands, each tiny nail done in gold. "Musette should know of this." She gazed up at me, and there was so much more of her than there should have been. She would always appear to be eight, a petite eight, but her eyes held an adult's awareness, and more.
"There are some unexpected guests that are about to make their appearance. I cannot spoil the surprise, for that would anger Musette, and through her, Belle, but I think that you and I will be equally unhappy with them. I think that you and I more than any will see it for the disaster it is."
"I don't understand," I said.
"Jean-Claude will explain their presence to you, when they appear, but only you and I will truly grasp why the mere fact that they are here is bad, very bad."
I frowned. "I'm sorry, but you've lost me."
She sighed and unfurled her fan with a practiced movement. "We will speak again after the surprise." She turned to walk back towards the curtain.
I called after her. "What saved you from the dark?"
She turned, the fan folding away again, as if playing with it had become habitual. "What saved you?"
"A cross, and friends."
She gave a small smile that left her eyes as empty and gray as a winter storm. "My human nurse."
"Did she see what was on the bed?"
"No, but it saw her. She began to shriek. She shrieked, and shrieked, and stood there, staring at nothing, until she fell down dead. Her body lay there for a very long time because no one wished to enter the room."
Valentina opened her fan with a snap. I managed not to jump this time. "The smell got to be quite atrocious." She smiled, and made a joke of it, a vicious joke, but she couldn't make her expression match the humor. Her eyes were haunted, no matter how cruel the smile. She left through a flick of black drapes.
All three of us visibly relaxed when the drapes swung shut, and we shared a glance. "Why do I think I'm not the only one too tense to pull this off tonight?" I said.
Asher kept Jean-Claude's hand, but moved around so he was facing both of us. "Musette smells a lie, and she will not let it rest."
"Valentina and I just finished talking about the mother of all bad vampires, and you're already back to harping on Musette."
Jean-Claude squeezed my hand, and sighed.
"The Sweet Dark will not take me tonight, Anita. It will not pin me to a table and unfasten my clothes and force itself upon me. Musette will."
"You're in our bed now, rules say she can't have you."
"But she smells that it is a lie."
"I can't help that the fact that we haven't had intercourse comes up on vampire radar as lying about f**king you."
"Musette wishes it to be untrue, ma petite.She is searching for anything that will allow her more room to play. Your doubts, Asher's doubts, give her that room."
I closed my eyes and counted slowly to ten. When I opened them, they were both giving me their best blank faces. It was like looking at two superb paintings, suddenly made three-dimensional, very lifelike, but not alive.
I squeezed Jean-Claude's hand, and he squeezed back. "Don't go all strange on me, guys. I'm having enough trouble tonight."
They both blinked, one long graceful blink, and they were "alive" again. I shivered and took my hand back from Jean-Claude. "That is so disturbing," I said.
"Pourquoi, ma petite?"
"Why. He has to ask, why." I shook my head, and crossed my arms. I had to cradle my br**sts, because, thanks to the bra and the neckline, there was no way to cross my arms over my chest.
Damian came through the black drapes. His scarlet hair glowed against the cream and gold of his old-fashioned clothes. He could have stepped out of a seventeenth-century painting, complete with white hose below knee-length pants and those odd high-heeled buckle shoes the noblemen wore. Only his hair, loose and blazing, was untamed, and recognizably him. He had not volunteered to be one of Jean-Claude's pretty men. Damian was a touch homophobic. Boy, had he fallen in with the wrong bunch of vampires.
He strode across the carpet and went to one knee in front of me. For tonight we were being formal, so I didn't argue, and offered him my left hand. He took it, laying a kiss on my fingers. "The Ulfric and his party are almost here."
"Where have they been?" Jean-Claude asked.
Damian looked up, giving us the full force of his grass green eyes. He almost looked underdressed without eye makeup. I think almost every other person at this little party was wearing makeup. The corner of his mouth gave the smallest twitch, and I realized he was trying not to laugh. "They had to find someone to repair the Ulfric's hair. No one in their pack was a hairdresser."